In Europe 75% of the total population lives in urban areas, and this figure is expected to increase in the years to come. The European URBES project aims to promote ecosystem services and biodiversity in our cities and raising awareness of the importance of urban green areas.

Urbanisation involves transforming landscapes in many ways, most notably through the use of an ever-increasing amount of asphalt and cement, effectively sealing living surfaces. At the same time, the availability of urban green spaces is decreasing along with trees being cut down. These changes are posing threats to environmental conservation in many urban areas across Europe. There is, therefore, an urgent need to raise awareness among city dwellers, decision-makers and other stakeholders in order to ensure the preservation and enhancement of green urban areas.

Ecosystem services are the numerous benefits that nature provides to humans. Examples of these services include clean air, flood prevention, noise reduction and recreation. Ecosystem conservation can help to strengthen the way cities adapt to climate change, and transition toward becoming more sustainable.

One project helping kickstart and better incorporate projects around ecosystem services in cities is the URBES – Urban Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services project, led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and funded by the organisation BiodivERsA.

URBES IS HELPING TO UNDERSTAND AND IMPLEMENT GREEN SPACES IN THE CITY

The Stockholm Resilience Centre, initiator of publications like Planetary Boundaries, is setting the bar high once again with URBES as they attempt to bridge the gap and strengthen the linkages between urbanisation, ecosystem services and biodiversity. URBES is also aimed at raising general awareness of the often forgotten value of natural solutions and biodiversity in cities.

  • Read also: Planetary Boundaries 2 - Interview with Katherine Richardson
  • URBES, initiated in early 2012, has been focusing on creating practical sustainable development applications utilizing existing examples and incorporating citizen input from European and American case study cities including Berlin, Barcelona, Helsinki, New York, Rotterdam, Salzburg and Stockholm.

    The project's research includes understanding more about biodiversity elements needed for ecosystem service generation, how varied these services are and how they can be better integrated in urban planning and governance. Three examples of URBES' work presented below, are helping make the case for incorporating green spaces and promoting biodiversity in cities.

    NEW YORK: LET ECOSYSTEM SERVICES DO THE DIRTY WORK

    For URBES' New York case study, the New School of New York has been assessing land use change and non-monetary ecological values of ecosystem services and how they contribute to pollution removal, storm water absorption, carbon storage and carbon sequestration.

  • Read also: Highlight of the Month: Green Spaces, Good Health
  • What the group discovered is that the presence of green areas in the city has proven to be an indispensable source for perpetuation of vital ecosystem services. Confirming the importance of green spaces helps urge city planners and decision makers to include these spaces in city planning and removes barriers to citizens demanding these spaces be a part of their cities. What's more, even with initial investments and upkeep, utilizing ecosystem services as a means of doing our dirty work, eg pollution control, will save cities money at the end of the day by building green infrastructure and has the added benefit of positive effects on human well-being.

    SALZBURG: A MODEL CITY FOR SUSTAINABLE CULTIVATION SYSTEMS

    In Salzburg, URBES is looking into urban agriculture and environmental sustainable cultivation systems as a way for urban populations to gain access to healthy, seasonal and local food and protect and utilize ecosystem services. There is also the hope that by growing food inside of cities, this can contribute to urban food security.

    Based on interviews in Salzburg, a city with an established agri “culture”, citizens were able to confirm the benefits of environmental sustainable agriculture, helping the team confirm the importance of these green spaces, and their numerous positive effects on socio-economic and health of urban dwellers. More specifically, questions dealt with the role of allotment gardens for recreation, food production, environmental education, ecological gardening and the general behavior of citizens.

    The interviewees were found to be considerably health conscious; 47% said that they produced food for health benefits and another 44% said they did so in an eco-conscious way without the use of fertilizers. Furthermore, 66% of the population sample interviewed stressed the importance that allotment gardens had for recreational reasons, confirming the importance that green spaces have for urban citizen well-being.

    CITIZENS ENCOURAGE PLANNERS TO INCLUDE GREEN SPACES

    A final example considers the importance of cultural ecosystem services to the well-being of city dwellers. URBES looked into how urban citizens perceive urban parks in four European cities; Berlin, Stockholm, Rotterdam and Salzburg.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, parks were primarily perceived as recreational assets. Perhaps you can relate to the interviewees who said they used parks mainly for going on walks, getting fresh air, relaxing and enjoying a relaxing environment and spending time with friends. What is important about this study is confirming the fact that many citizens value highly the contribution of nature to human mental and physical well-being. As this knowledge is confirmed, it helps encourage planners, governments and city-dwellers to take seriously the benefits of green spaces and work them into city planning processes.

  • Read also: Urban Biodiversity in Action - The URBIA Project